The Smaller House, Part III : How You Can Have More in Less
Updated: Apr 7
Tim James Rhodes RA. AIA.
Rhodes Architecture + Light
Creating thoughtful, efficient, comfortable smaller space is a process. An example from our practice is the best way to illustrate the ideas and thought that can go into creating smaller homes.
We were approached by a discerning builder and his family to design a river-front cabin for four families in limited space. The building we designed has common living areas, bathrooms (some compartmentalized with separate shower/toilet rooms and common vanities with multiple sinks) a shared kitchen with multiple preparation areas and work areas, a central entry that doubles as a hall for storing coats, shoes, and gear, and four bedrooms sleeping up to twelve. The bedrooms feature private spaces for adults, a bunk room for kids, and snug lofts with views down to the river and into living spaces, encouraging kids to share the experience of camping within the cabin. The cabin includes a covered exterior porch with roll-up garage doors at both sides that functions as a pass-thru, storage for river rafts, floats, boats and bikes and paddles. There is a small screened porch. The entire Wenatchee River Cabin is 1027.5 gross heated square feet.
The cabin is small but far from tiny. We developed the design in four steps.
First, we defined the real needs of those who would use it. Every space is used and all spaces function in multiple ways. Up to three families live there simultaneously while they use the Wenatchee River in summer (or winter); six adults and up to twelve kids. We programmed each space, creating lists of space, uses, who would use it, accessory functions, required storage We considered room sizes and then reduced the size of each space to the minimum necessary for it to function well and to be comfortable while encouraging gatherings and lending areas for individual rest and privacy. We eliminated extraneous space and any area that was not pragmatic.
Second, we worked to develop a plan that associated spaces that shared common functions and separate spaces to allow individual use and privacy. Kitchen, storage, and entry were central to living, bedrooms supported closely by bathrooms, circulation space (hallways) were largely eliminated and used for multiple functions.
We reduced extraneous space and tightened the whole while opening spaces to each other horizontally and vertically to allow common and overlapping partial or screened views. We looked carefully at the location of every space on the land and in relation to the river and the sun and wind and we tailored views and access to the exterior to fit the needs of each function. A lofted sleeping space had small, framed views of the river and the living room below, a larger bedroom had views and access directly to the land and the shared living space was complemented by an opening wall facing the water and a direct connection to the screened porch.
Third, with a firm plan in hand we asked each space how much volume best served it. With limited space and every square inch important, boats often do this well. We knew that a shared dining alcove could have a lower ceiling and a sleeping loft nestled above it that “spied” down into a vaulted living space. The larger bedrooms opened to trees framing water views increased by higher window-walls created by sloped (shed) ceilings and have sleeping lofts for younger children nearby tucked above lower-height bathroom ceilings.
The roof plan for the cabin was not created to express a particular style or to reference another architectural era; the ceiling heights of every space were varied and carefully selected to increase the psychological sense of space and connection (in larger, more public spaces) and to emphasize and facilitate the sense of intimacy and encourage comfortable gathering (in shared spaces). Sleeping spaces were vertically varied too; larger adult bedrooms have more volume corresponding to their larger footprints while sleeping lofts for children nestled and comforted with snug ceilings that encourage quiet repose, reading, and shared stories by flashlight. Volume above spaces that were not best served by higher ceilings was dedicated to longer-term storage.
Finally, the structure, materials and finishes were selected to emphasize the function and experience of each space. The construction of the cabin and its location far from big urban resources encouraged a simple foundation and the need to build it over several summers suggested a “kit-of-parts” approach and smaller joined structural members. The house was near the flood level of the Wenatchee River so we built it on piers and made the underside impervious to water and water creatures.
Operable windows are oriented to encourage natural ventilation by the wind with larger openings toward the predominate wind direction. Wing walls and roof overhangs block sunlight in hot summers and to allow the sun to heat the interior in the winter. Hardy materials are used for the exterior and for interior wall finishes (rough plywood, not gypsum board). Soft built-ins (restaurant-like benches with cushions and built-in tables) cluster seating to encourage group meals and conversation in the public spaces. The main living spaces were designed to be heated primarily by a wood stove.
Cabinetry was built in to accommodate storage and to accommodate gatherings to make meals. Sleeping bags accommodated on comfortable loft floors and tough tile finishes planned for shared bathroom spaces. The small size of the cabin allows (given a fixed construction budget) more investment per square foot and therefor higher level, lower maintenance, more natural (warmer) and longer-lasting materials.
1027 square feet is an ambitious goal for multiple families; his was a vacation home. Yet the comfortable and long-lasting use of this space (as little as 60 square feet per person) and the surrounding materials is the best example of the benefits of careful investment in design.
As our homes have grown larger many have also jettisoned the architect and traded good design for large spaces that are extraneous, do not function well, and, worst of all, are too large and too disconnected from the activities of our lives to feel comfortable. The result is wasted space, materials, and energy, the reduction of land and surrounding green space, poor or no connections between spaces and between human scale and the volume of space. Well-trained architects understand these principles and the deep human need for well-scaled comfortable human space.
This process and the care and time that insures better smaller homes is not only worth the investment, it pays you back with reduced square footage and materials, reduced construction costs, reduced energy use and better, more comfortable living.